Benjamin Cole: Oklahoma Will Execute Prisoner Whose Lawyers Say He Suffers From Paranoid Schizophrenia



CNN

Oklahoma is expected to continue its string of more than two dozen executions on Thursday, when it is scheduled to put to death Benjamin Cole, a 57-year-old man convicted of the murder of his 9-month-old daughter.

But in the two decades since the crime, the death row inmate’s mental state — exacerbated by his childhood exposure to drugs and alcohol, substance abuse problems, and physical and sexual abuse — has deteriorated to such an extent that Cole is not authorized to be executed. , his lawyers argued in a clemency petition.

Their claims put a long-standing question at the heart of the death penalty debate: how should it be applied to people suffering from mental illness. Their lawyers say the issue is at the center of a number of prisoner cases as Oklahoma officials plan to carry out 25 executions through 2024, a spree that critics have also condemned in the state’s history of failed lethal injections.

The US Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected Cole’s request for a stay of execution after the state commission refused to recommend leniency last month. Meanwhile, the detainee’s lawyers have asked a state appeals court to compel the detainee’s guard to refer his case to the district attorney for review to start a competency hearing.

The facts of Cole’s case oblige the state to spare his life, his lawyers told parole board members in recent months, though the arguments failed. They pointed to “evolving standards of decency,” including public opinion polls showing disapproval of executions of the mentally ill.

“Right now,” the attorneys wrote, “Oklahoma has the opportunity to show courage, follow these standards, and be on the right side of history through the execution of Benjamin Cole, a seriously mentally ill and physically disabled individual.” , to be banned.”

The United States Supreme Court ruled in a 1986 ruling that the execution of the seriously mentally ill was unconstitutional, and Judge Thurgood Marshall wrote: “It is no less abhorrent today than it has been for centuries to claim the life of one whose mental illness prevents him from understand the reasons for the punishment or its implications.” And in Oklahoma, state law makes it illegal to execute someone who has been found insane.

Cole, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has a brain injury linked to Parkinson’s disease, lives in a largely “catatonic” state and barely speaks to anyone, including his own lawyers, according to his pardon. After years of near-total isolation at Oklahoma State Penitentiary, he uses a wheelchair and lives in what one clinical psychologist described in the pardon as his own “mental universe,” without understanding the legal proceedings surrounding his impending execution.

“Benjamin Cole is incapacitated by his mental illness to the point that he is essentially nonfunctional,” his attorney, Tom Hird, said in a statement after an Oklahoma judge ruled this month that Cole had jurisdiction to be executed.

“His own lawyers have been unable to interact meaningfully with him for years, and the staff who interact with him every day in prison affirm that he cannot communicate or take care of his most basic hygiene. He just doesn’t have a rational understanding of why Oklahoma wants to execute him.”

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor praised the September vote of the probation commission in a statement, noting that Cole’s conviction and sentence have been upheld on appeal and dismissing questions about Cole’s mental illness.

“While his lawyers claim Cole is mentally ill to the point of catatonia, the fact is that Cole fully cooperated with a mental evaluation in July this year,” the attorney general said on Sept. 27. “The evaluator, who was not hired by Cole or the state, found Cole authorized to be executed and that ‘Mr. Cole currently has no evidence of any substantial, overt signs of mental illness, intellectual impairment and/or neurocognitive impairment.’

“I am grateful that the Board of Directors rejected Cole’s request for leniency from the Board. Our thoughts and prayers are with the other members of the murdered baby’s family.

Cole was found guilty of the brutal murder of his daughter, Brianna Victoria Cole, on Dec. 20, 2002, according to the attorney general’s office, when her crying interrupted him while playing a video game.

Cole grabbed his daughter’s ankles as she lay on her stomach and forced them against her head, breaking her spine and causing her to bleed to death, according to a probable cause statement. Cole then returned to his video game when his daughter died, O’Connor said.

Cole admitted in a recorded confession that he caused his daughter’s fatal injuries, his pardon said, telling police he “would regret his actions for the rest of his life”.

Prior to his trial, prosecutors offered him a plea deal that would have resulted in a life sentence without parole. But Cole, whose mental condition was already deteriorating, refused to accept it — a “complete act of irrationality against self-interest,” according to his petition.

Cole wanted the case to go to trial because, he told his lawyers, it was “God’s will” and “will transform his story…Rogers County, and it would allow God to touch hearts and Benjamin to to run freely from everything. Human.”

Cole had yet to be diagnosed with schizophrenia, but his trial lawyers twice called for competency assessments, arguing that his religious delusions made him irrational and, as a result, did not understand the legal process. Yet he was found fit to stand trial.

Cole’s attorneys today claim that at the trial, his attorneys, along with the judge and bailiff, acknowledged the prevalence of his mental illness when the man in the trial “literally didn’t move a muscle for hours with a Bible open in front of him on the table,” according to the statement. petition. Cole did not testify and was sentenced to death.

Cole’s struggles with his mental health date back to his early childhood, when he grew up in a junkyard surrounded by “rampant” drug and alcohol abuse, according to his petition. Encouraged by the adults in his life, Cole started drinking as a young child, it said, and one of Cole’s brothers testified that by the time Cole was 10 years old, they would be getting drunk gasoline. Cole has also endured years of verbal, physical and sexual abuse, the petition claimed.

Cole graduated from high school, but around that time he began to show “all the hallmarks of a person who is beginning to struggle with a serious mental illness,” according to the clemency request. He noted that 18 is the typical age at which early adult severe mental illness such as schizophrenia first emerges.

Cole became “isolated and withdrawn,” and a stepsister said he was depressed and didn’t have many friends, the petition said. He spent long spells unemployed, and although he joined the Air Force in 1986, he struggled with substance abuse, exhibited “impulse control problems” and was discharged the following year.

It was around this time that Cole’s first wife accused him of abusing their son, and Cole was sentenced to two years in prison for serious child abuse., said the petition. That marriage ended, as did Cole’s second, and when he met Brianna’s mother in 1998, he was living under a bridge or in a tent in Claremore, Oklahoma.

When their daughter was born, the petition stated that Cole could not keep a job and was “drinking heavily.”

Cole’s condition has worsened in the years since his trial, years in which teams of lawyers struggled to communicate meaningfully with him after conviction while a small parade of psychologists and psychiatrists evaluated his declining mental state, the petition states.

One Cole diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2008 found that his mental state had worsened when he went untreated for nearly 20 years.

That doctor also said Cole was “convinced” that any discussion of his case would “undermine his faith in Jesus and undermine his current ‘saved’ status,” the petition states. Those beliefs underscore what his lawyers describe as an “relentless reluctance” that stands in the way of their ability to work with him on his case.

His pardon describes visits by lawyers and doctors who found Cole dirty and “unkempt” in complete darkness in his cell, which he reportedly hardly ever leaves. Corrections officers and his case manager have told Cole’s lawyers that he almost always turns off the lights and disregards his personal hygiene, according to the petition.

In 2015, Cole emailed his mother some of his hair and a tooth, and in 2019 he handed one of his lawyers a package containing two more of his teeth and a note that the lawyers understood as a request to mail the teeth to his mother – both instances his pardon said illustrate his sharp decline.

In addition, according to his petition, a doctor reviewing an MRI performed on Cole this year found a lesion in his brain that “would be very consistent” with Parkinsonism.

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